This handout was prepared by Dr. William Tarvin, a retired professor of literature. Please visit my free website www.tarvinlit.com. Over 500 works of American and British literature are analyzed there for free.
Text used: Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair, eds., The NortonAnthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2003.
1. Whitman and Dickinson "all but invented American poetry," although their poems seem "at opposite poles" (Ramazani 30).
2. Dickinson's poetry examines a microcosm “in contrast to Whitman’s macrocosm" (Ramazani xxxviii):
--Her few, but revolutionary, poetic techniques vs. his plethora of rhetorical devices.
3. Dickinson's life and poetry were largely influenced by men, although she never married:
(1) Her father, Edward Dickinson, a wealthy lawyer; she viewed him as godlike, but also as rather pompous and Puritanical.
(2) Benjamin Newton, a law apprentice in her father’s office; she and Newton had a flirtatious affair when she was 18; his death shortly afterwards deeply affected her.
(3) Rev. Charles Wadsworth, a married minister whom Dickinson knew from 1855-60 (her 25th-30th years). He seemed not to know how much Dickinson loved him.
It was after Wadsworth moved his family to San Francisco that Dickinson took to wearing only white clothes, as if she were the waiting "bride."
"She took his departure hard, and her greatest poems, written in the early 1860s, have been read as reenactments of this pain and broodings on it" (32).
To wit, in 1862, she wrote a staggering 366 poems, almost all inspired by her love for Wadsworth.
(4) Col. Thomas Higginson, a prominent literary critic who encouraged Dickinson to write. He corresponded and occasionally visited her from 1862 to the end of her life and helped edit her poems after her death.
4. Only seven of her c. 1800 poems were published in her lifetime, all anonymously and probably without her permission.
5. The tension of Dickinson's poetry arises from the pull between her Puritan upbringing (stressing repression of desires) and her Transcendental inclination (her intoxicating celebration of life).
II. THEMES OF DICKINSON'S POETRY
A. NATURE 1. Her poetry examines (usually celebrates) the world of nature.
2. The world of nature is usually a source of joy. However, unlike many Romantic poets and Transcendental writers, Dickinson does not portray a oneness between the natural and the human spheres.
For instance, the bird in "A Bird came down" rebukes the human speaker of the poem.
B. LOVE 1. She knew love with a depth and violence that could come only from repression.
2. The American critic William Dean Howells wrote that in her love poetry "touch becomes clutch."
3. Her poetry dwells on the anxiety, danger, and loneliness which love can cause, as well as its ecstasy ("The Soul selects," "After great pain," and "My life closed twice").
C. RELIGION 1. Religious imagery is used throughout her poetry.
"After great pain" refers to Christ's suffering on the cross.
In “I heard a Fly," the dying person is waiting for "the King" (7), that is, Christ.
An immortal “Eternity" (24) is the journey’s end in "Because I could not stop for Death."
2. However, Dickinson's treatment of religion often borders on the disrespectful: In one poem (not in your text) the speaker calls God "a noted clergyman," and instead of addressing God as "Our Heavenly Father," she calls him "Papa above."
D. DEATH 1. A recurrent theme is the separation of two lovers by death ("My life closed twice") and their reunion in an immortal eternity ("Because I could not stop for Death").
2. As in Whitman's poetry, Dickinson's speakers never fear death. She often uses homely images to refer to it.
In "Because I could not stop for Death," death is a courteous caller, and the grave is a little house.
In "I heard a Fly," the speaker seems eager to die and is irritated when the blue fly interposes on the deathbed ceremony.
The pain of this world is more dreaded than death ("After great pain" and "My life closed twice").
III. STYLISTIC ASPECTS OF DICKINSON'S POETRY 1. Dickinson's innovations in style revolutionized modern poetry.
2. Telegraphic syntax: She strove to compress thought by omitting prepositions, conjunctions, and articles.
3. Ambiguity (several interpretations): This cryptic quality often produces a designed ambiguity; for instance, what does the fly represent in "I heard a Fly"?
4. Irony (the opposite of what one means or expects happens): In the opening stanzas of "A Bird came down the Walk," the speaker makes fun of the bird, only to have the bird thumb its beak at her at the poem's end.
5. Paradox (a statement which appears to contradict itself): The words society and majority mean "many," but paradoxically in "The Soul selects," "society" and "majority" consist of only one.
6. Imperfect/Slant Rhyme: Dickinson was the first poet to show the often greater effectiveness of approximate rhyme over exact or perfect rhyme.
Often this choice of slant rhyme reinforces the theme; for instance, in the first two stanzas of "A Bird came down," where the speaker feels she is in control, the rhymes are perfect: saw/raw and Grass/pass.
However, as the bird assumes dominance, the rhymes show the speaker's disorientation by becoming slant: around/head, crumb/home, and seam/swim.
7. Bold imagery and metaphors: Examples: Death as a kindly visitor in “Because I could not stop for Death”; nerves as “Tombs” (2) in “After great pain.”
8. Bizarre Punctuation: Caesuras (pauses in a line) are indicated by dashes, which guide the reader on how Dickinson wants a line read.
For instance, in line 2 of "The Soul selects," one would not normally pause after "Then," but the dash forces one to; this dash becomes almost like the door to which the speaker refers: "Then--shuts the door--"
IV. "THE SOUL SELECTS" 1. Theme: The decision of the poet to isolate herself from society after the death of the person she loved.
2. Alliteration (the repetition of a consonant sound): The ssound in soul, selects, society, stone" or the m alliteration in unmoved, majority, more, mat.
3. Slant rhymes: pausing/kneeling, nation/attention; one/ stone; gate/mat. Why are so many slant rhymes used? Probably to show that the poet knows the "slanted” abnormality of her decision.
V. "A BIRD CAME DOWN THE WALK" 1. Theme: The barrier between human beings and natural creatures.
2. Irony: While most Romantic poets presented their birds as gracefully soaring about the forlorn world of human beings (Keats's nightingale or Shelley's skylark), Dickinson shows how clumsy a bird is when forced to forage for food and drink on the ground.
At the poem’s end, however, the bird seemingly melts back into the air, its true "home" (16), having contemptuously rejected the piece of food offered by the person.
VI. "AFTER GREAT PAIN" 1. Theme: The despair which follows a painful loss.
2. Structure: The poem begins with an abstract statement (how pain stiffens both physically and mentally a person so that one becomes a "form" without "meaning").
Specific examples then follow, all reinforcing stiffness, numbness, and formality: "ceremonious" (a formal proceeding), "Tombs" (where rigor mortis sets in), "stiff Heart," "Wooden" movement of feet, "Quartz" (a hard rock), "stone," "Hour of Lead" (with perhaps a pun on the metal and on how a grieving person must be mechanically guided or "led" about), "freezing" (because the grieving person becomes emotionally cold), and "stupor" (a dazed state).
VII. "I HEARD A FLY" 1. Theme: The interposition of the trivial at that sublime moment of dying.
2. Summary: Stanza 1: The storm-like pain and agony of the dying speaker are stilled. Stanza 2: The speaker's friends and relatives are beyond tears. They have braced themselves, like the speaker, for the final storm, that moment of death when “the King" (7) will appear to take the soul of the dead speaker.
Stanza 3: The speaker says that she had divested herself of all earthly possessions.
Stanzas 3-4: Suddenly and unexpectedly, a fly appears, becoming the last thing the person sees before death: "and then / I could not see to see--" (15-16).
3. Symbolism: Many symbolic interpretations of the fly with its "Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz" (13) have been offered. The one most accepted is that the fly is a symbol of temporal, physical reality intruding into what should be an eternal, spiritual moment.
VIII. "BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP FOR DEATH" 1. Theme: Death is not to be feared.
2. Irony: The contrast between the fear of death, usually personified as a Grim Reaper, and the kindness and consideration of death as presented in the poem.
3. Metaphor: Dying becomes a drive with Death toward and immortal eternity. Most critics portray death as metaphorically a gentleman caller taking the woman out for a carriage ride.
I prefer to view Death as the groom coming to take his bride. Notice that her dress is bridal-like, a “gossamer gown" and a silk cape (15-16), and as any new bride, she is taken to her new home--"a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground" (17-18).
4. Symbolism: The third stanza is a symbolic recapitulation of life: (1) youth (the children playing); (2) maturity (the ripening grain); and (3) old age (the setting sun).
5. Syntax: "We passed" of stanza 3 parallels "We paused" of stanza 5.
IX. "MY LIFE CLOSED TWICE" 1. Theme: The suffering of separation.
2. Paradox: The poem presents three major paradoxes:
(1) The speaker's life closed twice before its close.
(2) Death and entry into immortality may possibly be lesser events than two not extraordinary occurrences that happened earlier during the speaker's lifetime.
(3) Being separated from a loved one is both Heaven and Hell.